Seeking to preserve the ‘spiritual ambience’ in temples by prescribing a dress code for worshippers may appear to be a laudable objective. However, courts of law should be cautious about framing their own rules in the guise of passing judicial orders. A fiat from the Madurai Bench of the > Madras High Court prescribing the sort of clothing that devotees should wear while visiting temples has come into effect in Tamil Nadu from January 1. A single judge decided on November 26, 2015 that to curb the wearing of “improper clothing” by temple-goers, a dress code was “inevitable”. Even though what was before him was only a petition for permitting a folk cultural performance on the premises of a village temple, he impleaded the State Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department as a respondent and proceeded to prescribe an interim dress code straightaway. > The code, that sets down dhotis or pyjamas with upper cloth, or formal trousers and shirts, for men, and saree or half-saree with blouse, or churidars with upper cloth, for women, and any fully covered dress for children, will be in force until the State government decides on implementing a code on the lines given in the court order. The department has now decided to appeal to a Division Bench against the single judge’s order. It has rightly taken the position that the order was not in consonance with the Tamil Nadu Temple Entry Authorisation Act, 1947, which permits individual temples to frame rules relating to attire based on their own customs and traditions.
It is true that many places of worship belonging to all religions do have and enforce some sort of attire for worshippers and visitors. There are temples that insist that male devotees should be bare-bodied above the waist while inside their precincts, and many that allow only dhotis and bar trousers. However, these restrictions are framed by temple authorities based on local tradition and customs. The acceptability of the worshippers’ clothing is decided by local circumstances and ought not to be based on external decree, much less through a judicial diktat. In Tamil Nadu, tens of thousands of temples do come under the State government through the HR & CE Department, but that does not automatically mean that >a writ of mandamus can be issued by the court to the authorities without sufficient cause or any public law principle. There is nothing to show that public authorities had failed to do their duty of protecting the ambience of temples all over the State. The judge’s code may not be unduly restrictive, but it raises the question whether there is any religious rule linking dress with devotion. It is not clear why the prescription is gender-based, when some kinds of apparel — shirts and trousers, for instance — are worn by both men and women. Judicial activism undoubtedly furthers public interest, but it is equally important that it is not used to impose a particular world view on the public.